LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 06: Fei-Fei Li speaks onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at … [+] NeueHouse Hollywood on February 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for MAKERS)
Getty Images for MAKERS
After the COVID-19 pandemic is over and the economy reopens, many students will resume work on their careers. But for many young people, their priorities are going to shift. After seeing the pain and suffering caused by a single invisible enemy, some will naturally prioritize biomedical research over other easier and more lucrative trades, like law and finance. And some will choose to pursue possibly the most impactful area, which lies on the borderline of computer science and biomedicine – Artificial Intelligence (AI) for drug discovery.
However, many women have historically seen both AI and drug discovery as predominantly male professions. And, according to a study we performed with a group of colleagues a few years back, women comprised only a small fraction of the top executives and board members in the Forbes 500 list of corporations.
However, news over the last two weeks has allowed the industry to take a breath of fresh air and has given renewed hope to the millions of young high-performing women entering the workforce.
Today In: AIDr. Fei-Fei Li appointed to the board of Twitter after leaving Google
Two years after Google removed its motto of “don’t be evil” from the corporate code of conduct and replaced it with “do the right thing”, “the right thing” started yielding lucrative military contracts, including the now famous Project Maven. One of the greatest AI scientists of our time, Dr. Fei-Fei Li, a computer science professor at Stanford and VP at Google, was one of the first to raise concerns about how this military engagement could impact the company. Dr. Li was the mastermind of the ImageNet project, which ignited a revolution in AI by demonstrating that deep learning systems can now outperform humans in image recognition. These ultra-fast and highly-accurate machine vision systems can now be widely used in military drone applications and have the potential to be grossly misused. Dr. Li quit Google and joined Twitter last week as an independent board member. Twitter has a lot to gain from this celebrity appointment.
Dr. Najat Khan promoted to Chief Data Science Officer (CDSO) of Janssen, a pharmaceutical arm of Johnson & Johnson
Many of the frequently-invited speakers to the top AI, data science, and drug discovery conferences know Dr. Najat Khan as one of the most well informed executives in AI for drug discovery and development. Previously, Janssen was comparatively slow with the adoption of AI joining a couple of university and industry AI consortiums and showcasing these as achievements. And to take data science efforts to the next level, Janssen’s new Global Head of Research and Development, Dr. Mathai Mammen, set up R&D Data Science as a top priority with a focus on Applied Data Science – the central figure in this is Dr. Najat Khan, who has already demonstrated a strong track record of delivering on measurable outcomes using Data Science tied to Janssen’s pipeline priorities. She has researched the field so deeply that the top management from other big pharma and AI companies started seeking her advice. She has a very unusual biography where she started her career as a Computational scientist, followed by a PhD in Organic Chemistry from an Ivy League school, almost a decade of leadership and strategy management consulting experience at the Boston Consulting Group across R&D and Commercial at top firms, deep knowledge of technology, and a track record to solve complex problems and deep experience leading teams with diverse skillsets. So when the company started executing on its Data Science strategy and vision, Najat was promoted to a newly-formed role of a Chief Data Science Officer (CDSO). In the pharma industry, the word “AI” is often associated with hype and the more conservative scientists in the trenches often use it as an excuse to resist change. My guess is that this was one of the reasons why “Data Science” was chosen for this critical organizational role and we should expect the other pharma companies to follow. Kudos to J&J.
Dr. Iya Khalil recruited by Novartis as the head of the new AI Center established in collaboration with Microsoft
When you meet Dr. Iya Khali at a conference for the first time, you will see a postdoctoral student or a young university professor in her 20s or early 30s. But when she walks on stage and starts presenting her case studies you will naturally start looking for a bio in a conference program.
Founded in the year 2000 by Iya Khalil and Colin Hill out of Cornell University in New York, Gene Network Sciences (GNS) was focusing on the applications of computational biology to drug discovery. In 2010 it formed a subsidiary, GNS Healthcare to focus on the applications of data science in the healthcare industry. The company built a strong brand and presence in multiple industries driven by Dr. Khalil’s relentless pursuit of innovative solutions that solve practical problems. In fact, GNS Healthcare was doing so well that the move to a new role with a big pharma company caught many industry insiders by surprise.
In 2017 Novartis surprised the market by appointing then 41-year-old Dr. Vasanth (Vas) Narasimhan as the CEO of the company. His major strategic directive – digital transformation. In October 2019 this strategy culminated in a partnership between Novartis and Microsoft intended to transform medicine with artificial intelligence. While Novartis is clearly one of the leaders in innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, Microsoft is not as well-known for pioneering innovative work in AI in drug discovery or drug development. But it also managed to partner with AstraZeneca and added the CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, Emma Walmsley, to its board of directors. On a side note, the Chief Digital & Technology Officer (CDTO) of GSK is also a brilliant female executive, Karenann Terrell.
The partnership between Microsoft and Novartis resulted in the formation of an AI Innovation Lab at Novartis intended to develop AI for end-to-end drug discovery and development across the entire organization. The success of this lab technically defines the success of the entire organization in its AI efforts. It had to be a sure bet and Novartis started looking for an AI expert with an impeccable track record of delivering results. Many industry insiders held their breath and debated who is it going to be and who could fill this highly-visible and demanding role. Some theorized that either Novartis or Microsoft would acquire an existing platform and team to accelerate. However, to everyone’s surprise, and cheers, Novartis managed to miraculously lure Dr. Iya Khalil to take the driver’s seat. The industry insiders can now rest easy. The lab is in good hands. Congratulations to Novartis on grabbing one of the high-power female AI executives from a top startup.
BioPhamaTrend published a report on 11 Inspiring women in AI for drug discovery
A new industry publication and analytical house, BiopharmaTrend, compiled a list of female scientists leading the way in AI-powered drug discovery and development. The list is structured by the publication record and impact. I know many of these women personally and some of them are the original inventors of technologies that are transforming the way we think about drug discovery. While I know over half of these leaders personally, I was also very happy to see Dr. Elena Tutubalina, one of the rising stars in deep learning for natural language processing (NLP) on this list.
A Spring for Women in AI
To conclude, while there is still a long way to go before we see equal numbers of women in AI for healthcare, the glass ceiling is breaking and I cannot think of a better career choice for a young woman. From personal experience, I may add that just a week ago I got to take part in the AI and longevity group meetings in our organization where I was the only male. AI-powered drug discovery is likely to be the most impactful field of research in the 21st century, and it would be great to see it being led by a group of ambitious women. The two fields that were previously dominated by males are converging and attracting many great female leaders. The glass ceilings are breaking, and soon cease to exist.